The UK Labour Party’s ruling body has this week agreed to adopt in full an international definition of anti-Semitism after being embroiled in a racism crisis since the start of the year. With the media’s cameras primed on yesterday’s meeting in London one wonders how Labour have been left to hose the flames at a time when prominent Tory figures are being openly Islamaphobic and extreme right wing parties continue to foster a hostile culture in Britain. But a brief look over how this crisis came to be shows why Labour are the party cushioning the blow while cases of genuine racial hatred get swept under the carpet.
In March this year Labour faced its first accusation of anti-semitism after David Collier produced a dossier exposing Labour Party members, including leader Jeremy Corbyn, as belonging to a private Facebook group where antisemitic tropes and comments were freely made. Although Collier acknowledged that “there was no suggestion Jeremy Corbyn shares the views of many inside the group”, indeed he had already left the group after becoming Labour leader in 2015, it was enough to set the wheels rolling on a racial smear campaign that has snowballed ever since.
Casting accusations of Collier’s motives aside, the dossier highlights the shaky foundations that gave birth to anti-semitism indictments that have become widespread ever since. As any Facebook user will tell you being part of a group doesn’t mean you endorse everything that gets posted in it. And if you track the report’s commissioning body – the far-right Jewish Human Rights Watch – you get an idea of the political intent behind it. But that didn’t stop most mainstream media outlets picking it up.
Later that month the next smear came in the form of an allegedly anti-Semitic mural. As Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London, pointed out at the time, the allegation that Corbyn was supporting an anti-semitic messages amounted to a “mere argument from resemblance: because anti-capitalist discourse and anti-Semitic discourse share some structural features”. And anyone who has studied the many years of anti-capitalist discourse projected by the Labour leader would agree. Yet the mural was enough to give Karen Pollock, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council grounds to demand that Corbyn does more to tackle anti-Jewish feeling in Labour Party ranks.
In April, Corbyn was once again criticised for attending a “third night” Passover Seder celebration held by Jewish group Jewdas, which had suggested that allegations of antisemitism within Labour were a political plot aimed at discrediting the party. Given what we know so far their point isn’t far off the mark, but an anti-semite attending a Passover celebration with a Jewish group surely doesn’t add up? Maybe they were not the “right sort” of group to be associating with, but as Charlotte Nichols, Women’s Officer of Young Labour, wrote: “It is not for non-Jewish people, in criticising Corbyn’s attendance, to determine what is and isn’t a legitimate expression of the Jewish faith”.
With the anti-semitism crisis now in full flow the conversation became honed in on Labour adopting the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. Although the party had accepted IRHA’s working definition of antisemitism at its 2017 conference there were concerns over its application, particularly in relation to Israel which could be afforded protection via a side door in the agreement because it encourages the presumption that criticism of Israel is likely to be anti-Semitic. The definition was adopted in full yesterday, with accompanying examples, yet the issue of free speech in relation to political conflict between Palestine and Israel is still a sticking point.
Yet given what we know so far about accusations of antisemitism in the Labour party at a time when far right views seem to be running rampant one wonders whether this so-called crisis will ever come to an amicable end. Even if the new definition is accepted there will always be “skeletons” in Labour’s closet, waiting to be unleashed the next time it threatens to disrupt the tired cycle of mainstream politics. Watch this space next time you see a spike in Labour’s approval rating – the next smear wont be far behind.